Climate Change, Environment, Europe, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-RUSSIA: Threat To Polar Bears Worries Russian Experts

Kester Kenn Klomegah* - IPS/IFEJ

MOSCOW, Aug 26 2010 (IPS) - – Environmental experts in Russia have warned that unless urgent steps are taken internationally, climatic changes combined with man-made factors could reduce the world’s population of polar bears by as much as 70 percent by 2060.

A polar bear on Russia's Chukchi Peninsula. Credit: WWF/Russia

A polar bear on Russia's Chukchi Peninsula. Credit: WWF/Russia

The polar region — which includes the Arctic Ocean and parts of Alaska, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Russia, Norway and Sweden — has experienced unpredictable climatic changes over the last few years. As a result, polar bears and their natural habitat are seriously threatened.

“The climate changes seem to be caused partly by natural factors about which we can do nothing, such as anomalous solar activity,” said Vyacheslav V. Pankov, director for the Guild of Russian Ecologists. The guild was created to unite Russian ecologists and experts on the environment.

“But the environmental effects of human activities — pollution, destruction of natural migration routes, a reduction of food sources — create additional problems for the conservation of biodiversity,” he added.

Other experts agree. Vladimir Tchouprov, a Greenpeace researcher in Russia, said the arctic region is especially vulnerable to the effects of global warming. But he said Russian officials also feel concerned because the U.S. seems to be deviating from a plan worked out by the Moscow office of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

He said the WWF had categorically told the U.S. to impose a moratorium on the hunting of polar bears, since experts believe that poaching and illegal trading have severely reduced the population. Though the plan was worked out in collaboration with experts in other countries, the U.S. still allows indigenous peoples to hunt polar bear.

The bear mainly inhabits Alaska and the neighbouring Russian Chukotka peninsula. Of the worldwide population of 25,000, an estimated 6,000 are to be found in Russia. Polar bear hunting has been banned in Russia since 1956, and in 2008 the animals were deemed an endangered species.

“A bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Russia came into effect in 2007, which obliges (the two countries) to reinforce the protection of the polar bear,” a WWF report said. The first Russian-U.S. commission on polar bears met last year to discuss ways of complying with the agreement.

“We believe the commission should use all its efforts to introduce a moratorium on polar bear hunting in Alaska until there is evidence that the population has increased,” the report quoted the head of the WWF in Russia, Viktor Nikiforov, as saying.

Another factor threatening the largest predator on earth is the melting ice in the Chukchi Sea which depletes the animal’s main hunting ground. According to Russian scientists, the polar bear population could decrease by 50-70 percent over the next 50 years, unless immediate steps are taken to protect them.

Russia needs to thrash out a conservation strategy, particularly by reducing man-made negative influences, said Evgeny Shvarts, WWF representative, in an interview on Russian radio.

“We want to ensure that each species is registered in the red book, and to make certain that the Russian Natural Resources and Ecology Ministry, along with scientists, academic institutions, the WWF and other non-governmental organisations, work out a combined strategy to protect polar bears. This could be approved by the ministry on behalf of Russia,” Shvarts said.

“Already two strategies for the protection of the polar bear and the Amur tiger have been approved. These explain the steps to be taken to understand what is happening to the polar bear and what should be done to prevent its extinction. The white bear serves as an indicator of the health of the arctic ecosystem and, at the same time, is one of the most vulnerable of species,” he stressed.

In April this year, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gave Russian scientists a hand by putting a satellite collar on a polar bear. Putin was visiting Alexandra Land, an island in the Franz Josef Land archipelago in the far north of Russia, where scientists are studying the bears.

Satellite collars allow scientists to follow the migration of animals, observe their daily and seasonal movements and identify habitats. “Habitats are being depleted by melting ice caps. It is important for us to know the movements of the polar bear, how it reproduces and how it rears its young,” Putin said. Russian polar bear specialist Nikita Ovsyannikov said the shrinking habitat has forced the animals to move to dry land, where there is less food and a greater threat from poachers.

“It’s difficult to count the bears because they live on the ice, but we can record increased mortality,” Ovsyannikov added.

The deputy director of the Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Vyacheslav Rozhnov, said research into the redistribution of polar bears is being carried out in Europe, the U.S. and now, for the first time, in Russia. Rozhnov says the findings of the studies should be an incentive to preserve conditions for the survival of the bears.

An official expert on arctic project development in the Russian Economic Development Ministry, Evgeny Konygin, said the government is keen to develop tourism in the region as a key source of revenue and that this was now a developmental priority.

(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service, and IFEJ — the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)

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